| GEOGRAPHICAL reviews |
Unravelling the Mystery of the Majestic River Oxus
HALFWAY HOUSE TO HEAVEN: Unravelling the Mystery of the Majestic River Oxus by Bill Colegrave BENE FACTUM, PB, £14.99
The River Oxus has always exerted a powerful fascination on European travellers, from the time of Alexander the Great, who founded the city of Ai-Khanoum on its banks in what is now northeastern Afghanistan. ‘The road to Oxiana’ intrigued arguably the finest of all British pre-war travel writers, Robert Byron, whose resulting book of the same name is seen as a classic. In turn, he influenced Peter Levi and Bruce Chatwin: their attempt to reach the city was unsuccessful but inspired a fine account, The Light Garden of the Angel King.
It’s still a dauntingly difficult place to get to, as I discovered four years ago, when I got tantalisingly close to Ai-Khanoum but was beaten back by the security situation; conditions in this part of Afghanistan have worsened since, so travellers’ accounts have become even more valuable.
ABOVE: a guide stands with the skull of a Marco Polo sheep; TOP: a horseman displays two trout caught by hand from among reeds in a stream
Bill Colegrave is an exemplary guide to the region’s complicated history and geography as he tries to reach the river’s source in the Wakhan Corridor, a quest made more complicated by the long debate about precisely where the source lies; what he says of a previous seeker, Lord Curzon, applies equally well to himself: ‘He was a traveller; he was one of those people who grows at once excited and content when in the wild or the unknown.’
Colegrave had to use Curzon’s 1895 report on the area for the Royal Geographical Society as ‘nothing better exists’, an indication of how close to the edge of the map the River Oxus still lies, just as it did in Alexander’s day. Anyone who doubts that there remain corners of the planet that are still waiting to be explored should read this book. HUGH THOMSON
DHOW CULTURES OF THE INDIAN OCEAN: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam by Abdul Sheriff HURST, PB, £18.99
Many of us landlubbers sustain Palin-esque (Michael, not Sarah) dreams of jumping on board a dhow one of these days. This entrancing little book is unlikely to puncture our fantasies, but (unless you happen to be an expert) it will also reveal that you and I know far less about dhows than we always imagined.
First, as Abdul Sheriﬀ tells us, dhows have come in many shapes and sizes, and the book’s explanation of the boat’s technological evolution is fascinating. Second, sailing on a dhow has often been a perilous enterprise, and the book’s analysis of the extraordinary navigational techniques deployed by those who have sailed the Indian Ocean and coped with the vagaries of the winds and accompanying pitfalls is a treat. Third, if we were ever to fulfil our dreams, we would be in extraordinary historical company: some of it (primarily pirates and slave traders) not very wholesome, but most of it magnificent.
Sheriﬀ’s book paints a vivid portrait of the cultures (from the Swahili coast to the Western
Indian seaboard, and many stops both beyond and in between) that have, over thousands of years, engaged in one of the world’s most significant mercantile, cultural and religious encounters. It’s a scintillating story and my only grumble is that the publisher has chosen a ridiculously minuscule typeface – it’s tiny and will probably give you a headache.
But please read through the pain. Sheriﬀ is a wonderful guide who, while clued up on the scholarly literature, knows how to tell a tale. JONATHAN WRIGHT
66 www.geog raphical.co.uk FEBRUARY 2011